Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Grief as Liturgy

single candleHere’s something I have learned this year, both from my own experience with loss and from listening to other people’s pain: There is a liturgy to grief, an entire calendar of solemn commemorations juxtaposed with joyful memories. When we lose a loved one, certain dates matter more than ever before. I’d like to propose that each grieving person enact a kind of liturgical calendar to that effect.

Today, for example, is the first anniversary of my mother’s inaugural trip to the emergency room. She noticed that she was having double vision and could not drive safely, so she took herself to the hospital for some tests. It was hard to imagine that this was a neurological symptom that her recently diagnosed breast cancer had already spread to the lining of her brain, since only a few weeks earlier, her PET scan had been clear.

But the vision problem was indeed caused by the cancer, as the next days would come to show. On December 5, she started falling down intermittently and became unable to control her legs. On December 8, she went into the hospital for tests and never again returned home. She died on January 3.

Why are these dates so fixed in my mind? Why am I returning inwardly this week to where I was and what I was doing this time last year?

As I have talked with other bereaved persons I’ve come to understand that my fixation on these certain dates is not unusual. Many of us do this. Consciously or unconsciously, we mark not only our ultimate loss — the day our loved one died — but many smaller losses leading up to that.

That is similar to what liturgy does. In the church calendar, we rehearse various events in the life of Jesus. Some of them are joyful, such as Christmas Day. Others are far more somber. It’s not just that we mark Jesus’ death on Good Friday; we also remember the day before that, when he was betrayed. What we call Holy Thursday was the beginning of the end, and also the end of the beginning.

Taking my cue from the way the Christian calendar blends seasons of pain with ones of joy, I decided earlier this year that I would just allow myself to feel whatever I was going to feel on significant dates related to my grief about Mom. On her birthday, I took the day off work and went to a museum she loved. I thought about the ways she allowed her life to be enriched by art and music. It felt right to honor her in this way.

And today — a year after the day when I couldn’t kid myself anymore that Mom’s cancer was something beatable – I’m going to strike back at the darkness by decking the halls with light. Tonight I’ll be dragging out decorations and ornaments, including many that I didn’t see from childhood until we packed up Mom’s house earlier this year. So many memories.

The Greek roots of the word “liturgy” have to do with public work; liturgy is literally the work of the people. Grief, too, is the work of the people. It is difficult, and it takes mindfulness and planning. But it is infinitely better when we do it together.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Grieving is an important way of honoring the importance of someone in your life. My mother died in April 1991, and I have never stopped thinking about her and missing her. I do still think about her every single day. However, the first year was especially hard. But I am comforted by my belief that she is on the other side of the veil and that she is continuing to do good work and to take an interest in the lives of those who loved her on earth. I often find myself thinking of her at different ages, and gaining insight from the perspective of having lived more myself. For example, I am now in my fifties, so I think about when she was in her fifties. It makes me feel closer to her and gives me a little deeper understanding of who she was.

    My mother was a remarkable woman: intelligent, deeply kind, and pragmatic. It sounds as though your mother is also remarkable. Honoring her life and her memory is a wonderful thing to be able to do, especially this first year.

  • Jana – I resonate with this post very strongly, both as one who has experienced deep grief and as one who loves the liturgy of the church. For me, the two have become intertwined – I began to heal from the loss of my second son when I showed up at the seminary chapel for worship on the day of the celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the water and the sacrament are intertwined in my memory with that of my two good friends holding my hands through the entire service.
    Thank you for sharing this. Grief is not a linear process, My prayers are with you.

  • It sounds like you have a good plan. I would like to join with these others who have responded with kindness and sympathy to wish you the comfort you need at this time. I know that grieving is also a way to heal mentally and emotionally, so I hope you will also have that sense of a cleansing through this.

    Next June, it will have been 50 years since my mother passed away. There are certain things I remember about that day, but not the date. I always have to look that up. I just know it was the first week in June and I was at a sleepover with the other young women in our Ward when the Bishop’s wife drove up to get my sister and me and tell us what had happened.

  • Robin, I’m so sorry for your loss. Two weeks out is a very raw time. And to have the holidays right around the corner makes it even harder.

    Thanks to everyone who has responded here . . . and for sharing your own losses.